President Donald Trump put an arm around Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick on Tuesday in a moment that was aired on national television.
Bittick was among a handful of sheriffs nationwide who met with Trump to talk about law enforcement issues and recent executive orders on immigration.
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“You have no idea how respected you are,” the president said to the sheriffs seated with him at a table in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “Sheriffs, generally speaking, (are the) leaders of law enforcement.”
Bittick, sheriff since 1983, was president of the National Sheriff’s Association in 2001-2002. He remains on the leadership team as chairman of governmental affairs. The sheriff’s father, former Monroe County Sheriff L. Cary Bittick, was the association’s president in 1981-1982.
The association represents more than 3,000 sheriffs nationwide and Tuesday was the last day of its annual winter conference.
Law enforcement was major focus of Trump’s campaign.
“I just want to let you know that our job is to help you in law enforcement. We’re going to help you do your job,” Trump said. “We’re going to expand access to abuse-deterring drugs, which a lot of you have been talking about. They’re out and they’re very hard to get.”
The opioid epidemic is “a new thing,” Trump said. “And, honestly, people aren’t talking about it enough.”
Trump said he suspects a “very big portion” of crimes that sheriffs deal with are drug-related.
“We’re not going to have drugs pour in the border like they have been,” he said. “We’re also committed to working with law enforcement to stop terror attacks.”
Bittick said he and about a dozen other sheriffs “had a real good discussion” with Trump that lasted more than an hour in the Oval Office.
“He was willing to sit down and listen to our issues,” Bittick said. “For us, I guess, it was just nice to have somebody interested enough to want to know what our opinions were, you know? Sit down and listen to us.”
Asset forfeitures, the opioid epidemic and the surplus equipment program for law enforcement were among concerns aired by other sheriffs, Bittick said.
Bittick, though, asked for Trump’s support with criminal justice reform. A move is progressing in Congress to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, particularly life sentences, for some crimes.
“We don’t just want to see people turned out on the street,” Bittick said. “We’ve got a real concern about making those things retroactive. ... Our concern is that those people get out of prison and wind up back in our jails, in the sheriff’s jails, all around the country.”
While it was his first time in the Oval Office, Bittick had been to the White House on other occasions. He met in a large group with President George W. Bush and later with Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump was “very personable. He was cordial to all of us. He didn’t have any reason not to be,” Bittick said. “Nothing happened that was a bad experience. ... Overall, it was a very positive, professional experience.”